Football and Death

Angola, 31 January 2010, 9.38 pm: “Gido, to Zidan, back to Gido with a neat flick, he’s through on goal….Gido does it again!” Egypt crowned the champions of Africa in 2010 for the third time in a row, defeating Ghana in the final 1-0. I sat in the KFC in Zamalak watching the big screen, a sea of red replica Egyptian football t-shirts celebrating wildly in the streets, beep, beep, beep of cars, everyone hugging and cheering in victory, the Nile waiting, silent.

Almost a year to the day later, revolution would break out. The streets were filled again but with chants for freedom, shouts of hope, screams of desperation…

Almost a year to the day later after that, 74 Ahly fans, the Ultra Ahlawies, would be massacred at Port Said stadium. The same Ultras who stood fist to fist, scream to scream, with Egyptian security forces on Mohamed Mahmoud street in November 2011. Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s current football darling, wears the number 74 at the back of his shirt for his Italian club, Fiorentina. The same security forces who were at Port Said, watching, waiting…revenge.

Football suspended. The league over. No ‘Pharaohs’, the reigning three time champions, in the African Nations Cup 2012 to defend their title.

Cairo, 8 February 2015, 8.40pm: Almost two years to that day, 30 Zamalek White Knights, the bitter rivals of the Ultra Ahlawies, perished at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo, where their souls breathed their breath, where they received no defense or mercy from the security forces. No ‘Pharoahs’ in the African Nations Cup 2014, and after last night, the league has been suspended again. Again. Ghana lost the final last night by a single goal. Again. Death. Again. “Enta Ahlawy walla Zamal….never mind”….

The bloodied shirts of Zamalak fans, their famous white tops scattered outside the stadium.

The bloodied shirts of Zamalak fans, their famous white tops scattered outside the stadium.

Revolutionaries like Douma getting a life sentence the same week as Ahmed Ezz, the personification of crony capitalism and corruption under Mubarak, states his intention to run for Parliament next month, the ‘voice’ of the people. Voiceless. Numb. The game carried on last night despite the dead bodies. Numb to it all.

Greste arrives in Australia a free man. Good. His two colleagues, Egyptians, still rot in jail. Greste’s freedom tells us that Fahmy and Baher are guilty of only being Egyptian. Nationalism. What nationalism? Our football heroes made the people happy. Abo Treika, Ahmed Hassan, El Hadary, I miss El Hadary, Egypt was safe in his hands, Zidan, Gido…his goal feels a lifetime ago. For those that have perished since, it is.

Football. A sport. No, a lifeblood of Egypt, a source of solitary joy, and pride, amidst the humiliation, the defeat, hope and promises shattered, waiting to finally break. How long can we hold out? How many bodies are needed? “At least we’re not like Syria” HE tells us. Yes, he. An insult to both nations, to both peoples.

Congratulations to Ivory Coast on victory last night. In a parallel universe, at exactly the time you lifted the trophy, your once close rivals were calling parents telling them which morgue to go to.

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Mubarak’s freedom and our burdens

I still hear echos of ‘irhal, irhal, irhal’ (leave, leave, leave) from February 2011. The man we were asking to leave was Hosni Mubarak, the thirty year authoritarian president who was cleared on Saturday of having any role in the killing of 846 protestors in the protests against his rule. The protests that we call the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution…

I went to bed on Friday night tweeting “Mubarak verdict tomorrow. Unbelievable how irrelevant he’s become after it was ‘yaskot yaskot Hosni Mubarak’ that started all this”. I tweeted that because on the eve of the verdict in his trial, Mubarak was no longer part of the bigger picture in Egypt. Almost four years on since his resignation, Egypt has gone through unrelenting waves and cycles of political upheaval and violence. Seldom did Mubarak make domestic or international news. Instead, Egypt seemed to have a new starting point beyond Mubarak in the form of July 3 2013, where president Mohamed Morsi was removed from office at the hands of then head of the military and now president, Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Since then, Egypt’s news has been about terrorism in Sinai, mass death penalty judicial decisions, and the arrest and sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists on politically motivated charges. Since July 3, Mubarak had become irrelevant because the conversation, no, the revolution, had changed. The protests of June 30 2013 against Morsi’s rule and which facilitated Sis’s toppling of Morsi four days later, had become ‘the revolution’, and no longer was Mubarak the long standing problem in Egypt but Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood he belonged to.

And then the news came. On Saturday morning, Mubarak was exonerated of any wrong doing. He was a free man, but worse, he was deemed an innocent man. In starkly contrasting scenes outside the courtroom, supporters of Mubarak cheered while some of the families of those killed in the protests in January and February 2011 began screaming and crying at the verdict, raw desperation and anger.

As the news filtered, protests against the verdict began to form in Tahrir Square, the place that has become a place of hope, nightmares, and a makeshift morgue for bodies and dreams. If you look hard enough, you’ll still see graffiti on walls depicting the revolution, its faint outline defiance to the attempt of the establishment to remove all traces of it and what it stands for. If you take a deep breath, you can still smell the shrapnel that pierced young skin…you still rub your eyes when you think of the tear gas. And yet again, four years later, people were once again in Tahrir Square shouting their outrage at Mubarak.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with the same outrage and hope that fuelled the days of January and February 2011. But this wasn’t four years ago. This was the here and now. The present, where we all look far more tired, sound more pessimistic, where experiences of the past four years has been a teacher with a cane… no, a gun, and we are riddled with psychological holes.

‘Huwa yemshi, mish 7an 2imshi’ (He leaves, we will not leave) was chanted in Tahrir Square four years ago. Some of us have started to leave…

 

The faces of the martyrs of January/February 2011. Picture by Mos'ab ElShamy.

The faces of the martyrs of January/February 2011. Picture by Mos’ab ElShamy.

This is the first time I have sat down to write on current events in Egypt in eight months. I have refrained because after writing consistently on Egypt for three years, I was no longer surprised by anything. It felt like I was commentating on a sports match that we all know is rigged. I didn’t have the energy to shout penalty, goal, or any other breaking news, because none of it was ‘new’. It was all depressingly expected. But on Saturday morning, even though I knew Mubarak would never serve hard time in prison, I never thought I would see him deemed an innocent man. Never did I imagine he would be doing a telephone interview like nothing had happened, and where he could confidently say “I did nothing wrong”. I stopped writing as events unfolded because I didn’t want to lend any legitimacy to this farcical game and provide it with analysis. My half writings saved in a folder were therapy.

But one question keeps going around and around in my head: why did they have to exonerate him? ‘They’ has become a synonym for me for words like regime, Sisi, the deep state, and a number of other nouns that are both tangible and abstract…words we think we understand but that are forever changing. Why did they have to rob us of our only victory amidst our countless defeats? It feels like humiliation, a final message to let us know that our memories of January and February 2011 are all we have left, and when we finally perish, it will be gone forever. Despite how wrong everything seemed to go, from SCAF, to Morsi, to Sisi, we were always able to at least console ourselves with the fact that Mubarak was removed, that we had dragged his name through the mud. But we don’t even have that anymore as he woke up this morning as a free, innocent man. Today he is free, and we are not.

I still remember Mubarak’s February 1 2011 speech vividly. I sat on a step in Tahrir Square with thousands of people and no one in particular, listening to him say he would die on this ancient land and that Egypt would never be destroyed; that its ancient monuments that still stand are a testimony to Egypt’s strength. That night I screamed at him like we were nose to nose, but today I am comforted by those words amidst my anguish that this man is free….because he was right. This land of dust, blood, tear gas, bullet holes, and the faces of martyrs, all stare back at each other in silence, reminding each other of one man’s name. No matter how hard they scrub…

His time will come, or it won’t, it doesn’t matter, those moments four years ago are gone and the punishment for Mubarak goes beyond a judicial sentence. He is the symbol of our hate and the face on our flag of our desperation to get Egypt out of its cycle of being run by blood thirsty fear mongers. The victory of February 2011 was not the trophy of Mubarak’s blood because it is more than his life and death, his freedom or imprisonment. It is the memory that we did it once that provides the slightest flicker of hope that it can happen again. I still hear echoes of irhal, irhal, irhal.

I’m exhausted. You’re exhausted. What do we do with the last four years? What do we do with the shadows that follow us and the burdens of anger and hope we carry in one bag? We carry on until we can no longer carry, until we succeed or the time comes to give the burdens to the next generation, gift wrapped in prison uniforms and bloodied cloth, wishing them better luck than we had…

A Sisi presidency will not mean a safe Egypt

When Abdel Fattah El Sisi finally announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency last month, it was met with jubilation by the greater Egyptian populace because Sisi is seen by many as the one man strong enough to bring stability and calm to the country after more than three years of turbulence. But can he?

Egyptian emergency personnel and civilians gather at the site of a car bomb explosion outside the Cairo police headquarters in the Egyptian capital on January 24, 2014. (AFP/KHALED KAMAL)

Egyptian emergency personnel and civilians gather at the site of a car bomb explosion outside the Cairo police headquarters in the Egyptian capital on January 24, 2014. (AFP/KHALED KAMAL)

Early indications suggest that a Sissi presidency will do little to change the violent landscape he helped create. On April 2, just six days after he announced his candidacy, three bombs went off near Cairo University, killing a police general. That bombing was just one of a string of similar attacks that have been carried out since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi by Sisi last July. Despite being ‘mandated’ to stop terrorism since last summer, as well as marshalling the Sinai Peninsula where Islamist extremist groups are waged in a war with the Egyptian military, Sisi has not managed to fulfill his promise of stopping such attacks, nor is there any reason to suggest this situation will be improved once he is elected president.

This failure cannot be understated because this mandate came with the full support from the military, police, government, and media, and therefore there is little reason to believe he will be any more capable of putting a stop to acts of terror as a civilian president handing over his military and security duties. Furthermore, with elections due to take place in late May, Sisi’s elephant in the room on his first day in office will be Egypt’s crumbling economy. He will still be able to use the rhetoric of protecting the country from terrorism, but as a president casting off his military uniform, he will be under no illusions of where he must now focus his attention.

The bad news and expected continued violence does not end there. Sisi announcing his presidency should have been the world headline news that Egypt was expecting to make last month. However, on March 24, 529 defendants linked with pro-Brotherhood protests were sentenced to death by a judiciary that took only two days of hearings to reach their incredulous decision. This was perhaps more important than any announcement of who will inevitably be Egypt’s next president because it sent out a clear message that the judiciary is a force in its own right. That is, it is not just the guns of the police and military that can be heavy handed in trying to eradicate terrorists or the Muslim Brotherhood, but that a judiciary still bitter at its treatment by Morsi during his one year in office can be just as violent.

The false prophecy of linking terrorism to the Muslim Brotherhood

In between the military continuing its mandate beyond Sisi to put an end to terrorism and the judiciary expected to continue its heavy handedness on anyone linked to the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood themselves find themselves cornered into smaller and smaller holes as each month passes from last July. It is almost irrelevant that remaining Brotherhood leaders who are not imprisoned in Egyptian jails to denounce acts of terror committed by Islamist extremists in Egypt because the government and media have already done an excellent job in convincing Egypt, the world, and themselves, that the Brotherhood are exclusively behind the attacks, even when Islamist groups with no visible ties to the Brotherhood lay claim to an attack.

In the post-July era, the Brotherhood has sought refuge in London, but even that has now been compromised. In September 2012 UK Prime Minister David Cameron met and congratulated Mohamed Morsi on being Egypt’s first democratically elected president, but earlier this month Cameron ordered MI5 and MI6 to carry out an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the UK. This was no doubt a move by Cameron to shore up his relationship with the Egyptian regime that is here to stay, as well as Britain’s other key ally, the Saudi Arabian ruling family, which has its own long history of contempt towards the Brotherhood. If the inquiry into the activities of the Brotherhood in London did not come from pressure from the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it certainly would have been applauded by them.

The tragic irony for Egypt overall is that even with the Brotherhood depleted and Sisi becoming president, acts of terror will not stop in the foreseeable future because July 3 has become the rallying cry for extremists even if they have no connection with the Brotherhood. In almost a false prophecy, Sisi and the Egyptian State have genuinely convinced themselves that the Brotherhood are the only game in town and have become adamant that by getting rid of the Brotherhood they will stop terrorism. It won’t, and the cycle of violence appears set to continue well after Sissi becomes Egypt’s sixth president.

We are all still Khaled Said

Article first published at Asharq Al-Awsat.

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On Monday, March 3, the family and friends of Khaled Said won a small victory when ten-year jail sentences were handed down to the two policemen who killed the young man, whose death inspired Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Khaled Said, a 28-year-old blogger, was tortured and murdered in police custody on June 6, 2010, in his home city of Alexandria. The two Egyptian police officers found guilty of his murder, Awad Suleiman and Mahmoud Salah, were previously given seven-year jail sentences in 2011. The tougher sentences were handed down in a retrial of the case.

Egyptian policemen Awad Suleiman (C-R) and Mahmoud Salah (C-L) in the dock during their retrial for the manslaughter and torture of Khaled Said, Alexandria on March 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Amira Mortada, El Shorouk Newspaper)

Egyptian policemen Awad Suleiman (C-R) and Mahmoud Salah (C-L) in the dock during their retrial for the manslaughter and torture of Khaled Said, Alexandria on March 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Amira Mortada, El Shorouk Newspaper)

The tragedy of what happened to Khaled Said reaches far beyond one man and a family dealing with their loss. After pictures of his tortured face and body were leaked onto the Internet, Khaled Said came to represent all Egyptians who had suffered police brutality. His face became a symbol of protest against the impunity and unchecked power of the Egyptian police force, which embodied all that was wrong with the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. The Facebook page was perhaps the most influential online resource for arranging the January 2011 demonstrations, as the page administrator published calls to protest. Khaled Said was one young man, but for the millions who protested in 2011, he could have been any one of them.

The tougher prison sentence handed down to Suleiman and Salah is surprising because it comes at a time when the gains of the January revolution are severely threatened. Despite Mubarak’s resignation more than three years ago, almost all the pillars and institutions of his governance remain in place. The police force has seen a resurgence of its heavy-handedness since last summer.

Despite numerous accusations of police abuse, legal proceedings against officers accused of maltreatment and of killing demonstrators have largely been shelved. Most of those prosecuted have been acquitted, with few new cases filed while the brutality continues. On November 28 last year, prominent political activist Alaa Abdul Fattah was taken from his home in the middle of the night by police officers. He and his wife were violently assaulted by the officers after Fattah asked to see an arrest warrant. He remains in prison today. In October, journalist Aslam Fathi was tortured all night at a police station and he is currently filing a law suit against the police despite the reprisal it may invite against himself or his family.

There are countless other cases of police brutality and unchecked power reminiscent of the Mubarak days. Once again, the police are not being held accountable. Even the leaders of the April 6 movement, which was a mainstay of the 2011 revolution, have been locked up. Perhaps most worryingly, there has been little or no outcry by the greater Egyptian populace over this return of police violence because it is all being conducted in the name of “stability,” a word on the lips of the majority of Egyptians who have seen their country descend into chaos while the economy continues to crumble.

This is all in stark contrast to the early days of 2011, when Egyptians cast away their fear of the police and routed them on January 28, 2011, now known as the “Day of Rage,” which saw the military deployed across the country after the police had been forced from the streets by protestors.

Those days feel very far away now. The sentencing of Khalid Said’s killers is a small victory, but one that exists in isolation, because while the case is now closed, all that his defenders stood against appears to be back in full swing.

Three years ago, Egyptians identified with the “We are all Khaled Said” slogan because it was painfully clear how the police operated on a currency of fear and intimidation. Today, the police are again able to operate with impunity. The majority of Egyptians, who want the Muslim Brotherhood and the revolutionaries silenced in the name of national security, do not seem to mind how the police act: they associate those actions with order and stability. That support from the population will only last so long, because police brutality rarely operates within a vacuum and, just like Said’s murder, it only takes one case to turn a population against a shared oppressor.

Khaled Said is gone, but not forgotten. While his death ignited the rage so many Egyptians felt toward the police, his case is less about the jailing of two men, and more about how the institution these men represent still acts beyond the bounds of the law.

Unveiling Arab Men

This article was first published at Le Monde diplomatique.

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You may never have been to Saudi Arabia, but the chances are high that some very vivid images would come to mind if asked about gender equality over there. These past two months alone have provided ample material of what it means to be a woman living in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi cleric has recently argued that women should not drive because that would damage their ovaries and, as we found out last month, even if you are driving your diabetic father to the hospital, you will be arrested.

But what if I asked you about gender equality in Egypt? Two years ago, while in Cairo, I hosted a non-Arab man at the request of a mutual friend. As we sat down and spoke, my older sister walked in and sat with us. I then had to take a phone call and left the room for the kitchen. As I spoke on the phone I turned around and found the man standing in the doorway. Taking the phone away from my ear and signaling if he needed anything, he said “I didn’t want to offend you by sitting in the same room as your sister as she is alone”. I had to hang up on the phone because I could not stop laughing. But then I realised what had happened. Orientalism.

In Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism, he argued that the Middle East and East Asian nations and people are placed under one umbrella by the Western world which grossly simplifies and ignores the countless nuances and differences between these nations. I asked this mutual friend why he thought I would be offended if he sat with my sister alone, and after some encouragement to speak freely, he started his sentence with, “I thought all Arab men….”

Said died in 2003, but orientalist views of Arab men have not. They continue to exist partly because there is no smoke without fire. From my work on legal gender equality across the region, equality remains very far away, with some nations closer than others, but on the whole still severely lacking. Sexual harassment of women in Egypt (Egyptian and non-Egyptian) is rife, and political participation by Saudi Arabian women is non-existent. However, I point to individual nations because, just as the Arab world (defined as the twenty-two nations under the Arab League) has too often been portrayed as a single nation state of people, so too has the perception of over 200 million men in the Arab world been placed under the simplistic and vague definition of ‘misogynist’. You may argue that they merely practice different ‘types’ of misogyny, but that would at least be a starting point in realising that not all Arab men are the same.

What’s more, this lumping together totally ignores the possibility of a ‘progressive’ narrative on Arab men. My PhD fieldwork on the women’s rights movement in Egypt automatically assumes that I only interview women, but there are many men in the gender rights movement in Egypt who want to see gender equality realised, and do it in the face of challenges, such as ridicule from their ‘fellow man’. And in response to the Saudi cleric who justified the driving ban on women in Saudi Arabia, this video which ridicules the cleric’s argument went viral in October. It also happened to be made by two Saudi Arabian men, not women.

‘Polygamists’, ‘misogynists’, ‘abusive’ and ‘controlling’ are just some of the depictions you see over and over again of Arab men in popular media such as films or a TV series — or of course the Islamic terrorist image of a thickly bearded and Kalashnikov wielding jihadist. Yet Arab men, over 200 million of us, are not all the same. Yes, some of us do have a beard, but it may be more Brad Pitt in World War Z than Osama bin Laden, and some of us are clean shaven. Yes, some of us are religious, but more spiritual than suicide bomb, or atheist. Some of us may want our wives to wear a headscarf, but that is more of a discussion than a judicial sentence, and some of us may not even want our wives to wear one. And there are plenty of other examples that cut through stereotypes and binaries.

The primary problem is the reaction to overt statements of misogyny made in the Arab world by Arab men. But we are all different in how we think, dress, practice religion, and the list goes on, and that awareness plays a role in our reactions. I know that one Saudi preacher does not speak for all Saudi Arabian men, let alone all Arab men. I can hear him, critique him and retain the awareness that he is one man. Indeed, many Arab men may have nodded as he spoke, but others would also have laughed him off. Yet many outside of the Arab world continue to react in shock and horror to overt ‘Arab’ misogyny (rightly so), but then use this statement as a blanket damnation of another 200 million Arab men.

There is no denying that the Arab world has a great amount of ground to cover to protect women’s rights and freedoms, and the quest for gender equality remains paramount. However, the idea that all Arab women are oppressed because all Arab men are misogynists is very wide off the mark, because women’s oppression manifests itself in many different ways, and not all Arab men are the oppressors.

The Morsi Alliance and the Red Line Drawn for Egypt’s Women

Article first published at The Atlantic Council.
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Photo: NASL

As the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL), a coalition of parties and movements supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi, continue to call for protests, they have done so under the guise of various banners. On November 7, the alliance issued its 128thstatement calling for more protests, this time under the slogan of ‘Egyptian Women are a Red Line.’ They called on Egyptians to rally against the “flagrant violation of Egyptian women’s rights.” On first reading, it sounded like a cause many could rally around at a time of extreme polarization, and on an issue of paramount importance. The elimination of violence against women belongs to no political party or ideology, and for that reason, this could have, or should have, been an inclusive movement. Protection against women’s rights abuses should not be dragged into the Egyptian political mud, even if the perpetrators of such abuses are politically motivated. The NASL’s statements and protests themselves did just that.

In its call to protest in support of women’s rights, the NASL goes on to say that, “Egypt’s Anti-Coup, Pro-Legitimacy National Alliance affirms that these repressive practices [by the State] most clearly indicate the failure of the coup, [and] that is has no popularity whatsoever.” This is where the call for the protests clearly becomes less about women’s rights and protection against violence, and more about a political stance. By proxy, it becomes an exclusive protest for those with the same political motivations. Bringing the fight for women’s rights into the anti-coup fold blurs the important message of protecting women’s rights against abuse and violence.

This begs the question, how many Egyptian men and women who care about women’s rights, as well as the multitude of apolitical women’s rights organizations that campaign year round to stop violence against women, would have been deterred from supporting the protest because of its obvious political affiliations and symbolism? It is for this very reason that the fight for human rights and women’s rights cannot be adopted by political factions, because politics is inherently divisive, but human rights are a concern for all.

On the day of the protests, the official Twitter account of the Anti-Coup movement posted pictures of various protests across Egypt, using the hashtag #FreeWomenofEgypt alongside their standard hashtag: #AntiCoup.

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The choice of words, and their order, belied the real purpose behind the protest, and it had little to do with women’s rights, with the protection of women against violence becoming nothing more than an afterthought. The protest was rebranded an ‘Anti-Coup March,’ to use their own words, and the ‘Free Women of Egypt,’ were mentioned in order of importance. The way in which the protests were marketed was just as politicized as its participants. Pictures posted on the Anti-Coup Alliance Twitter account showed large crowds of women, holding pictures of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi, carrying yellow flags bearing the four-fingered Raba’a salute associated with the August 14 massacre of Morsi’s supporters. Women may have been protesting, but this was not a protest about women’s rights, as Statement 128 suggested. Manipulating the fight for women’s rights poses a threat to the overall movement for several reasons. In Egypt, whether under Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or Mohamed Morsi, violations against women has been a common thread in each regime, used as a means of intimidating and suppressing opposition to their governance. For years under the Mubarak regime, female protestors were targeted through sexual harassment by Mubarak’s security apparatus or hired hands – the strategy being that limited participation by female protestors would keep protest numbers small and consequently keep Mubarak’s regime safe. More recently, in March 2011, the interim SCAF government conducted the now notorious virginity tests on female protesters. Samira Ibrahim was the only one to come forward and publicly accuse the military of the practice, but the military doctor who allegedly performed the tests was acquitted. These targeted abuses against women cannot be ‘owned’ by any one political faction, and for this reason, no political group should use women’s rights abuse as a platform to build on their political discourse.

The Anti-Coup movement may defend its stance by citing the targeting of women by the military-backed government in an attempt to crack down on their protests. While the attacks on women who support Morsi and the Brotherhood are likely politically motivated, their decision to mix politics with their Friday protest for women’s rights was a mistake. The protests, heavily dominated with political symbolism alienated anyone who does not share their political beliefs, and so the protests themselves remained small in comparison to what it would have been if it was apolitical. Could apolitical women’s rights organizations have participated in the protests? The short answer is no.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood are a part of he Anti-Coup movement– the same Muslim Brotherhood that has made its views on women’s rights apparent, particularly in its response to the UN declaration on women’s rights. That is not say the Anti-Coup movement and the Muslim Brotherhood are one and the same, but the Brotherhood is nevertheless a member. This once again poses a problem for how apolitical women’s rights organizations could have become involved in the protest. Not only would they have been drawn into a specific political discourse, they would also have found themselves protesting for women’s rights with a group that does not share their vision for women’s rights.

The biggest danger the anti-coup protests posed was that it took a major issue and degraded it to political manoeuvring. The progression of women’s rights already faces countless socio-political challenges, and because of the fluid and dramatic changes in Egypt’s political paradigm over the past three years, women’s rights organizations have remained on the periphery. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s involvement in women’s rights, for example, was a detriment because of her obvious political affiliations, and, partly as a result, women’s rights groups have consciously avoided attaching themselves to one political ideology or loyalty.

Egypt’s own history of blurring the lines between women’s rights and politics provides a valuable lesson. In 1920, with the encouragement of Saad Zaghlul, the head of the Wafd Party which spearheaded the national movement against the British, leading women’s rights activist Hoda Shaarawi created the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee (WWCC). The WWCC rallied Egyptian women to fight alongside the Wafd Party against British colonialism. With nominal independence achieved in 1922, women’s rights were consequently marginalized in the 1923 constitution, with women’s suffrage discarded. Shaarawi saw that when merging women’s rights with the political motivation of a party, women and their rights were used only as a platform for political gain. As a result, she dissolved the WWCC and created the apolitical Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. This took place almost a century ago, and the Anti-Coup movement would do well to remember that any form of violence or abuse against women should be condemned – political discourse is neither necessary nor appropriate for its condemnation.

El-Sissi and the Egyptian Presidency

Article first published at The Huffington Post.
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A six by twelve billboard greeted me on my drive from Cairo airport to my apartment, less than a mile away from former president Hosni Mubarak’s presidential palace. “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” in bold lettering in Arabic and English, and a determined looking child with the Egyptian flag painted on his cheeks completed the picture.

Endless Egyptian flags hang across apartment balconies and drape horizontally across civilian buildings. There is no escaping it: Egyptians have fallen for their country again.

At the centre of this romance is the shrewd man in uniform and Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. And if Egyptians could personify their love for Egypt right now, that personification would be el-Sissi himself.

Comparisons being drawn between el-Sissi (left) and revered former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Comparisons being drawn between el-Sissi (left) and revered former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Since July 3, the day that saw former president Mohamed Morsi ousted, and consequently launch a thousand TV panels across the world about whether Egypt had undergone a coup or not, el-Sissi’s popularity cannot seemingly grow any more than the heights it has already reached. Apart from a brief defensive operation to global media trying to dispel the notion that Egypt’s democratic transition had been hijacked by the military, you will not find many Egyptians who care anymore whether the world understands or not. You only need to drive around Cairo for half an hour to see that the semantic debate over July 3 is finished: el-Sissi and the army are in; Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are out.

El-Sissi mania is everywhere. From biscuits and cupcakes adorned with his face being sold on high street vendors, to speeches being made at weddings praising him for saving Egypt from “terrorists.” Television hosts and guests mostly have nothing to say that would demote him from anything less than a Demigod, and even leading politicians and former presidential candidates have essentially paved the way for el-Sissi to run and sweep presidential elections if and when they happen.

El-Sissi has so far played it cute on the “will he or won’t he run” question. Yet realistically, the odds that a man, who enjoys the fanfare that even Egypt’s most popular actors and pop stars could dream of, will not heed this call but rather return to obscurity, are extremely unlikely.

Unlike the group he dismissed from government, the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sissi has thus far been non-committal about whether he will run or not — a mistake the Muslim Brotherhood made when they adamantly insisted they would not field a candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, only to then backtrack and consequently turn the wheels of suspicion towards them that they craved every opportunity of power.

Yet, el-Sissi is doing exactly what he needs to do to keep people talking about him, and sooner rather than later, it will no longer be about when presidential elections take place, but rather, when will el-Sissi “accept” the will of the people for him to be its president. The last time he asked the public to take the streets to support him was in the fight against terrorism, and the way his stock has continued to rise since July 3, there is little doubt that if he asked the people to decide whether he should run for the presidency, he would find mass support once again.

Of course, el-Sissi as president would be a major vindication for many around the world who cannot get past the word “coup”, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood themselves, stating that el-Sissi’s intervention three months ago had nothing to do with restoring democracy but in fact a massive set-back to the democratic process. The military general, who overthrew the democratically elected president, and then taking the up the mantle of president himself, would be the final proof they need. If el-Sissi does eventually occupy the presidency, Egypt will just have to endure this criticism just as it did in the immediate aftermath of July 3.

Egypt is often compared to other countries that have or are going through a similar transition. These are often useful but limited, and perhaps a more rewarding comparison would be to compare the Egypt of today with the Egypt of only eighteen months ago. Under military rule under former Commander-in-chief, Hussein Tantawi, who el-Sissi succeeded, it took less than a month for many to turn against the army. In January and February 2011, while millions took to the streets to remove Mubarak, protestors sang national songs about the unity between the people and the army. But Tantawi lacked both the personality and shrewdness of el-Sissi. And perhaps most importantly, Tantawi forgot the most basic military tactic which applies to politics just as it does on the battlefield: divide and conquer. Tantawi failed to produce an alternative enemy of the state after Mubarak’s removal, and with Mubarak gone, Egyptians voiced their anger and discontent with Tantawi and military rule who were a blunt force when a softer hand was needed.

El Sissi, however, has not made that mistake. Despite most of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership being arrested or on the run, as well as the fateful dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that led to over a thousand killed, el-Sissi appears to recognise the vital importance of maintaining his popularity by keeping the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood alive, and at the forefront of the minds of the Egyptian populace.

And it is working. Keywords like “the Hamas threat” and “Islamic terrorism in Sinai” dominate Egyptian media, who have become the voice box of the interim government and el-Sissi. “The threat is not over, but just beginning” is the headline message, and moreover, in less than three months, the label “Ikhwan”, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, has now become the umbrella term for all forms of Islamic terrorism, ensuring that the group’s name is now synonymous with being the number one enemy of the state. If at any stage el-Sissi needs to retain his popularity, all he need to is mention the “Ikhwan.”

It is hard to imagine any politician wishing to run for the presidency while the prospect of el-Sissi running remains a very strong possibility. Egypt has always had a paternal relationship with the presidency, a relationship that Mohamed Morsi failed to fulfill, but a role that el-Sissi already occupies. Only time will tell if el-Sissi will resist the temptation of the presidency, but if he does not, and the popularity he receives today is anything to go by, it will be less of an election, and more a Roman triumph mixed in with a coronation.